There was a time when hybrid or remote working was the exception to the rule, not the norm. However, the last three years have seen people in all positions, from admin to executive, transition from surprise that remote working might work, to expecting it as a standard part of their employment package.
With the advantage of being able to work in a world-leading organization while living in an affordable area near to family or children’s schools without an arduous commute, increasing numbers of workers are struggling to envisage a time when they will go back into the office. According to Gallup, home and hybrid working are here to stay and most US employees will plan to continue remote or hybrid working for the foreseeable future, with more than half saying they would consider moving jobs if their ability to work remotely was compromised.
This move toward off-site working is not necessarily a negative thing. Remote working may not impact productivity; for many, it may even increase it. But what are the other implications, not only on teamwork, but on career progression? If you are little more than a face on a screen, are you likely to progress at the same rate as if you were in the office most or all of the time?
The Challenges of Remote Working
There have been countless conversations about the pros and cons of hybrid working. Pros include the ability to recruit – and job hunt – without limits. Finding tech positions that match your skillset with minimum salary $100k a year is, after all, much easier if you are not confined by geography, as is finding talented staff to fulfil such roles. Remote working has also introduced the almost alien concept of work-life balance. Without long commutes or time spent on office banter, the working day tends to be more productive (another pro), but also ends to begin later or end earlier, leaving time for recreation. This balance contributes to employee wellbeing which further improves productivity; and so the cycle continues.
However, remote working is not always the ideal world that many employees think it is, or want it to be. Without regular interfacing between team members, it is harder to develop team loyalty to their team, organization or brand. It is also more challenging for ambitious team members to develop their skills by learning from others and interacting with colleagues across the organization, as well as the inevitable impact on team collaboration in terms of the organic opportunities that arise at the water cooler or photocopier, or in the canteen. When asked if in-office visibility is an important factor when conducting employee performance reviews, 61% of employers surveyed said that “it did not factor into their decisions and does not affect overall performance review.” However, of that cohort, 62% also asserted that time in the office was an important or very important factor when considering promotion or salary increase.
One of the most significant implications of remote working is the impact on the gender gap. With 19% of women saying that they would never return to office-based work, compared to 7% of men, and the fact that women are more likely to prefer home working in the first instance in order to accommodate their lion’s share of caregiving and domestic duties, it is entirely possible that any negative implications of remote working are more likely to impact women.
The Importance of Face-to-Face Interaction
Direct interaction with colleagues and managers is something that was taken for granted prior to the remote working revolution. These interactions extend beyond coffee machine chatter, or even discussing a challenge in the elevator. Particularly for new or ambitious members of staff, face to face interactions provide an opportunity to make themselves known:
- to team members as a safe pair of hands or a go-to authority for support before elevating it to line managers, hence developing and demonstrating leadership skills, and
- to managers.
Before remote working, it was considerably easier for a new or ambitious team member to make themselves known to their supervisor; they could simply pop their head into the office to ask for advice, run an idea past them, or even offer assistance. The remote equivalent of these: phone calls, emails or messages, are not nearly as impactful and could be seen by an overloaded senior team member as more of a hindrance than a help.
Face to face time allows team members to build a rapport so that aspiring leaders can demonstrate their capabilities, and senior staff members can identify potential talent. It is impossible for these organic interactions to be replicated remotely, but there are strategies that can help. These include:
- regular weekly check-ins that happen regardless of whether there are pressing issues to discuss
- open small talk chats on the organization’s CRM that allow for general conversation and chitchat during lunch hour or coffee breaks
- a schedule of away days and in-office time to promote team building and communications.
Developing Leadership Skills
Leadership skills are developed at every stage of our lives, from the playground to the sports field, to the office and the board room. Nobody is born a leader, but by learning from the good (and bad) examples of others, and trialling different communications and leadership techniques with different groups of people, individuals tend to develop their own leadership style. These skills are developed over a period of time and a good manager or director will notice as a team member evolves, noting the areas of strength and those that require a little development to achieve the required skillset and standards.
On the flip side, strong leadership skills require the ability to adapt and lead in a changing landscape and it is entirely possible that someone with the required skills to lead an entirely office-based team may struggle to transpose those skills into successfully managing distributed teams, and vice versa. In theory, the age of remote working could act as a leveller: while traditional leadership material may not emerge in such an environment, characters that are less likely to be visible in an office environment may be allowed to shine. It is important to recognize that different people flourish in different environments. Without the camouflage of great interpersonal skills and the ability to bluff, it is just possible that real talent, passion, and ability could shine through.
The prize will no longer go to the person with the nerve to knock on their supervisor’s door but hard work will rarely go unnoticed by a good leader. This doesn’t mean sending emails late at night; it means getting the job done well. Supervisors can nurture future managers by offering opportunities across the board. Regular meetings, brainstorming spaces and feedback sessions can all help to hone future leaders. Meanwhile, those with their eye on promotion can aid their cause by keeping a dossier of achievements, regularly reaching out to colleagues and supervisors with offers of support and help, and ensuring their attendance at any (and all) in-person events and meetings.
Mentoring matters. In fact, extensive research spanning over the last four decades demonstrates irrefutably that access to a mentor allows employees to gain a host of professional and personal benefits. When central to organizational culture, mentoring can improve productivity, employee retention and advancement which in turn has a significant impact on the bottom line. The inability to access mentors in person may be seen as one of the most significant detriments of home working. However, remote working doesn’t have to be a disadvantage; far from it, research suggests that virtual mentoring can actually mitigate some of the pitfalls of in-person mentoring while retaining the benefits. The key to success is in implementing a schedule of interactions and outlining what is expected of both mentor and mentee. Mini updates or online messages can go a little way to replace ad-hoc, spontaneous interruptions, but it is important that appropriate boundaries are established and met. Does it sound messy, conflicting and a potential minefield? Yes, it does. However, in-person mentoring is fraught with similar challenges; as always, the key to mitigate them is to be aware of what those challenges may be and how to identify them, as well as what needs to be done when faced with them.
There is certainly a lot to untangle when looking at the impact of remote working on career progression. On the one hand, your boss is not there to see you working late every night; on the other, you are not approaching burnout because you feel like you have to work late every night despite your home challenges and needs.
There is a reason why so many talented individuals are choosing to prioritize working from home over office-based working, despite the potential disadvantages in team rapport and career progression. However, the onus is not just on employees to demonstrate their skills and leadership potential, regardless of where they are located. There is equal pressure on employers to recognize that if they don’t implement ways to develop remote talent in the same way that they do office-based teams, they could be at risk of overlooking, or even losing, tomorrow’s leaders. It is, therefore, important that organizations, supervisors and team members work together to implement strategies that enable them all to reach their full potential.